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Home Department

Volume 229: debated on Thursday 22 July 1993

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Secure Accommodation (Juveniles)

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is his estimate of the current shortfall in the number of places available in local authority secure accommodation for juveniles whom the courts wish to send to such accommodation.

Under the present law, the courts have no powers to require that any juvenile should be detained in local authority secure accommodation either before or after conviction

Is not it accepted that there is a shortfall of places available in secure units? Why do not the Government give local authorities the funding that they need to provide the places that have been identified as necessary? In Birmingham, it costs over £2,200 a week for each of the eight places that are provided and currently occupied and it is estimated that at least another 16 places are needed in the west midlands. Why do not the Government give that support? I have a letter from the local police who say that, as well as more secure units, they want to see more supervision of young people on bail and more support for offenders' families. If the Government are really committed to tackling crime, why—[Interruption.]

Local authorities have the powers that they need to provide secure accommodation. If Opposition Members think, as they should, that local authorities should give greater priority to the provision of secure accommodation, they should make those representations to the local authorities concerned, many of which are now controlled by the Labour party.

What plans does my right hon. and learned Friend have to ensure that staff in children's homes—even those in non-secure children's homes—keep a reasonable measure of control over the children in their care? Is he aware that some of the children cause absolute misery and mayhem to nearby residents?

My hon. Friend has identified a particular problem which needs to be addressed. It is a problem which will be addressed to some extent when we legislate. as I hope to do at the earliest opportunity, to give the courts the power to make orders so that young, persistent offenders can be detained in secure accommodation.

Will the Home Secretary confirm that it is now two years since the Home Office promised additional secure places for juvenile offenders and not one of those places has been built? Will he also confirm that the revenue funding for such places has not even been agreed? Does he understand that local authorities, the police and local communities do not want to wait another two or three years before those places in secure accommodation and elsewhere are available? They want action now, as it is now that crime is being committed.

The particular places to which the hon. Gentleman has referred are in the course of being provided. Why does not he address the question that I raised in answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) a few moments ago? Local authorities have the power to provide secure accommodation and there are many examples, such as Leicestershire, where the Labour party has refused to open secure accommodation that was originally provided when those counties were under Conservative control.

Rapists

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what measures his Department is taking to deal with rapists.

Courts have been empowered to impose longer sentences on persons convicted of violent or sexual offences and to require that they should be supervised for longer periods when released. The Prison Service runs programmes for sex offenders aimed at tackling the roots of their behaviour and preventing reoffending.

While thanking my hon. Friend for that reply, may I ask him whether he recalls that when a provision was introduced to enable the prosecution to appeal against over-lenient sentences, it was opposed by both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party? What does my hon. Friend think that the public should conclude about those who talk tough on law and order, but who shy away when they have the opportunity to turn the rhetoric into reality?

Time and again, the Opposition have voted against measures that we have introduced which have proved absolutely essential. Since we introduced those powers, the Attorney-General has referred 16 cases in which people have been sentenced for rape and 12 of those sentences were increased by the Court of Appeal. Other cases are pending.

Is the Minister aware that there is serious concern about the bail conditions given to rapists? Is he aware that in parts of Nottinghamshire cases are taking about nine or 10 months to come to court either because of the incompetence of the Crown Prosecution Service or because of a lack of funding? In that time, because of weak bail conditions, too many of those accused visit the areas in which the attack has taken place and they often abuse and harass those whom they are alleged to have raped. That is not good enough. The bail conditions must be tightened in such cases. It is the Minister's neglect in controlling the Crown Prosecution Service that is allowing such problems to occur.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman that it is the fault of the Crown Prosecution Service. I am, of course, aware of the concern about people who commit other crimes on bail, but I remind the hon. Gentleman of the provisions of the Bail Act 1976 under which bail can be refused in all cases if the court is satisfied that the person might abscond, reoffend, threaten witnesses or pervert the course of justice. That is what the law says. Judges and courts have the powers to deal effectively with anyone who appears before them and who might reoffend on bail.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the case this week in a court in my area in which Judge Starforth Hill released on bail a person who was being tried for three rapes? He gave the man bail against the advice of the police and the man now resides in southern Ireland. There is no way in which we can get him back. Is that not a travesty of justice?

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on that particular case at present. I merely repeat that the Bail Act, if it is enforced properly by the courts—we have circulars designed to draw the law to the attention of magistrates and judges—provides that if the court is satisfied that someone might abscond or reoffend, it does not need to grant bail. In each case, the decision is at the discretion of the courts and judges.

Obscene Publications Acts

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he has any plans to review the provisions of the Obscene Publications Acts.

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what recent representations he has received concerning the working of the Obscene Publications Acts.

We are not reviewing the central provisions of the present law on obscenity, but we are examining ways in which to make existing legislation work effectively. We continue to receive representations on the general subject from hon. Members and others.

A unique twinning, Madam Speaker.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me and with the Prime Minister that the book "Juliette" by the Marquis de Sade, which glorifies child abuse and murder, is "truly horrific"? As the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney-General have said that no prosecution is possible because no conviction could be guaranteed, will my hon. Friend and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary come to the House as soon as possible to announce an amendment to the Obscene Publications Act 1964, something which is long overdue?

It is a very nasty book, but it is for the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide whether to bring forward a prosecution. The law that my hon. Friend complains of explicitly states that it is the harm that the material can do that is the nature of the offence. I do not believe that there is any form of words that could improve the law to deal with the case.

Will my hon. Friend take time next Tuesday to watch "The Cook Report", which exposes the evil, secretive and lucrative trade in computer pornography? Will he tell the House what actions he intends to take to review the obsolete test of obscenity and also the Obscene Publications Act 1964, which forces the police to operate against the vile trade with one hand tied behind their backs?

We are looking carefully and urgently at the subject of computer pornography. The systems that are on sale and that can be exchanged come under the present law. We are also examining whether self-constructed systems come under the law.

Does the Minister support the introduction of custodial sentences for the possession of child pornography, because at the moment some people who possess child pornography are given minimal fines?

The effect of the law in that area is one of the things that we are looking at and is at the top of our list.

Does the Minister agree that the most pernicious form of pornography in recent years has been that which has been communicated through the telephone service following the Telecommunications Act 1984? Does he welcome the measures that have been proposed by the independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services and Oftel?

Will the Minister also note that the pornographers are putting together a fighting fund which they reckon will total about £1 million to fight the proposals? Will the Government take note of that and, when the matter subsequently reaches a public debate, will they do something about it?

The hon. Gentleman has taken an interest in the matter for a long time. The law is being examined with great care and the hon. Gentleman knows that the codes of practice are currently being revised also.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that the test for obscenity—that the material has a tendency to deprave and corrupt—shows that, objectively, there is a fearful latent detriment in pornography? Since the test clearly is not stopping the damage of pornography, will my hon. Friend reconsider the proposition that there is no need to supplement the test with a further and more effective one?

We have examined the law and there have been a number of private Member's Bills on the matter. My right hon. Friend clearly stated that the test is whether the material will deprave and corrupt, or do actual harm. That is what the test is all about. It is essentially the same test as we have had since 1868. It was regarded by many people as over-effective for 100 years, but people now say that it is under-effective. What my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members must realise is that jury attitudes have changed. I do not believe that we can compensate for that by changing the wording of the law. We are willing to consider any suggestions for improvement.

Does the Minister accept that tinkering with the edges of law will not deal with the problem? While we recognise that the matter relates to the moral climate, is not it true that the Government and their advisers are not prepared to tackle the problem?

The Government are anxious to tackle the problem. The hon. Gentleman should suggest a better test. The problem, as I have stated twice from the Dispatch Box, is that material that the hon. Gentleman and I and other hon. Members may think of as obviously harmful is often not thought harmful by juries.

Offending On Bail

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received regarding offending on bail; and if he will make a statement.

We receive representations from time to time; we share the concern about offending on bail. We have supported the Bail (Amendment) Act introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) and we have introduced an amendment to the Criminal Justice Act 1991 to give courts powers to increase sentences for those who offend on bail.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that by supporting that Bill, the Government have declared that they intend to deal with bail bandits, a subject which worries many hon. Members? Is not it the case that Conservative Members are convinced that my hon. Friend is endeavouring to deal with the problem, unlike Opposition Members, who have difficulty expressing a united opinion?

My hon. Friend comes straight to the point. We are determined to tackle those who offend while on bail. Bail is a right, but it is also a privilege. We cannot tolerate for much longer those who offend on bail, when there may be no good reason for them to do so. We have already taken measures. We keep the law under constant review. If my hon. Friend has any suggestions of sensible further improvements, I shall look forward to hearing them.

What action is the Minister taking on a case that I have twice referred to the Minister of State of a Bradford man who had a disgraceful history of breaching bail conditions, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, was granted home leave and has since absconded? The prison authorities tell me that he would not have been granted home leave if they had been told of the breaches of his bail conditions. What action is being taken to ensure that such a disgraceful incident does not happen again?

We have revised the rules on home leave, but I shall be happy to receive the detailed information of that case from the hon. Gentleman and look into it personally.

Young Offenders

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what powers he has to review custodial penalties for offenders under the age of 18 years.

The Government keep all penalties under constant review and propose changes when we judge that it is necessary. We have decided to introduce as soon as possible a new secure training order to deal with the hard core of persistent juvenile offenders for whom other court-imposed sanctions have failed.

In welcoming the secure training order, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he agrees that the peak age for offending in Britain is 16 for boys and for girls? Is he aware that the lives of our constituents are made miserable and inconvenient by the activities of a small minority of people who deserve custodial sentences because of the scale of their activities? Does he agree that the cautioning system in Britain, use of which has increased significantly in the past few years, certainly needs review so that adequate deterrence is provided in cases of burglary and other offences?

It is clear from my discussions with magistrates, judges and the police that there is a need for a secure training order for those 12 to 15-year-olds who have already been through all the community sentencing procedures and are still determined to continue in a life of crime. There is overwhelming evidence of the need for a secure training order, but there is deafening silence from the Opposition on accepting that need.

Does the Minister agree that if we are to have secure training orders and people in security, we must deal with the need for secure accommodation? The Minister says that there is no evidence that the Opposition are concerned about the problem. Will he acknowledge that in Leeds, where there are 27 secure places, discussions were held two years ago between the authority and his Department about the addition of 10 places? It was agreed that the extra places should be pursued. Yet no money has been produced by the Home Office, as it promised since that date. How can we have more people in secure accommodation when we do not have the places?

It is clear that the Opposition are dodging the point. Secure training orders are specifically designed for 12 to 15-year-olds who will be sent to units directly by the courts. The Opposition know—if they do not, they should—that the courts have no power at present to send to a secure unit directly anyone under the age of 15. Will the Opposition support the demands of magistrates throughout Britain to give them that power? Yes or no?

Is my hon. Friend aware that today in Yorkshire a 17-year-old youth has been convicted for his third joyriding offence in 18 months? Unfortunately, I cannot name him because of the absurd Criminal Justice Act 1991. Suffice it to say that when the arresting officer caught hold of him, the youth said that he was prepared to kill to make good his escape. That was no idle threat because the young man has killed before. In 1991 he ran into a 57-year-old nurse in my constituency. When will my hon. Friend change the law so that eventually the punishment fits the crime, not the criminal?

Of course, while we are looking at the law on the sentencing of 12 to 15-year-old persistent juvenile offenders, we shall at the same time look at the law for other age groups, to ensure that sentences are proportionate to those in the younger age group. I hope that my hon. Friend will not be disappointed when we have concluded our discussions.

Is not the Minister failing to learn from past mistakes? Is he aware of his Department's own evidence that under the old approved school system the vast majority of young offenders had reoffended within five years and that children leaving approved schools had a reoffending rate that was 49 per cent. above that which would otherwise have been expected from their records and characteristics? He should take note of the consensus and demands of my hon. Friends that the present system needs to be better operated. Secure places should be provided by local authorities, where people can be detained close to their families and given support to try to reduce the reoffending rate.

It is clear from what we have said so far that the new secure training orders will be nothing like approved schools or borstals. The Opposition cannot hide much longer behind the myth that we are re-establishing old borstals; we are clearly not. Sooner or later, the Opposition will have to come clean. Will they vote for secure training units or not?

The hon. Lady had better explain that to magistrates and to the police who have arrested 14-year-olds, some of whom have 30 previous convictions. Such youngsters have been through the whole range of community sentences and now the only other sentence for them is a secure training unit. The Opposition cannot ignore the fact that for a small number of young people community sentences are not appropriate.

Police Officers (Injuries)

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many police officers have been injured in the course of their duty for the last 12 months that figures are available.

Information on the number of injuries is not held centrally. In 1992, 14,946 police officers were assaulted on duty in England and Wales.

In the light of that response, I thank the Home Secretary for allowing the trials of the extended baton and telescopic baton throughout the country. Unfortunately Lancashire, where I live, is not an area where the trials are taking place. I have figures that show that in 1991 the number of police assaulted on duty was 439; last year, it was 466. That is an appalling figure. Once the trials have been completed, if they are as successful as I believe they will be, will the Home Secretary widely extend the issue of extended batons and telescopic batons and ensure that the police have the tools to do their duty of protecting the public against the criminal?

I have made it clear that I am determined to ensure that the police have the equipment they need to protect themselves from the attacks and assaults to which they are increasingly subjected. I saw on Monday, in Poole in Dorset, a demonstration of the Arnold baton. I share my hon. Friend's hope that the evaluation that I have authorised will soon be successfully concluded, so that the batons that are currently being tested can be used more widely across the country and give the police the protection that they need.

Does the Home Secretary recall that six months ago in my constituency, WPC Lesley Harrison was viciously attacked? Does he agree that the bravery shown by policewomen and policemen deserves our admiration and practical support? Given that more than 20,000 police officers came to Wembley this week and that in areas of difficult policing there is grave disquiet about the effects of the Sheehy report, will the Home Secretary take seriously their concern that the number of police officers will be reduced as a result of the report, leaving many communities under-policed?

Of course, I understand and am aware of the concern that has been expressed. I have made it clear that I intend to consult the police and not confront them on the question of change; but change is necessary. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look again at the report. He will see that, far from reducing the number of police officers available for policing duties, the object of the report is to increase the number of police constables on our streets.

In the light of my right hon. and learned Friend's information about the number of police officers injured, will he assure the House that in the coming weeks he will work closely with the police staff associations to reach agreement on proposals for reform, which both they and he desire?

I can indeed give my hon. Friend that assurance. I have every intention of engaging in a constructive dialogue with the police over the next few weeks. The consultation period will not expire until the end of September; I have made it clear that I will listen very carefully to the views of the police and others, and take them into account before reaching any final decisions.

Are not the police under tremendous pressure as a result of the appalling statistics revealed by the Home Secretary? The Sheehy report has led to a complete disintegration of morale, and the proposition that there must be a link between performance and reward has not helped. Will the Home Secretary now repudiate that statement and give the police a clear assurance that the basis of market testing in the Sheehy report is not acceptable to the Government?

No. I will not prejudge the outcome of the consultation in any way. The Sheehy report was designed to strengthen the links between responsibilities and rewards; that strikes me as a thoroughly worthy objective. The report sets out one way of achieving it, but I will take into account any other suggestions. I intend the consultation period, which is currently under way, to result in fruitful and constructive dialogue with the police and all others with an interest in these matters.

Asylum (Fraudulent Applications)

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what progress his Department has made in preventing fraudulent applications for asylum.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Charles Wardle)

New procedures designed to deter bogus asylum applications were introduced in November 1991. Since then, the number of new asylum applications has nearly halved. The new Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act will also help significantly.

Conservative Members welcome the new asylum legislation. Will my hon. Friend join me in praising Dover immigration service for yesterday's highly successful raid on illegal visitors to this country? Will he confirm that one way of reducing the incidence of social security fraud would be to reduce the number of bogus asylum seekers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in saying that a number of bogus asylum seekers have been involved in social security fraud. There have already been 26 successful prosecutions, and a number of other cases are being investigated. One case involved a family of four from Zaire who had submitted more than 50 applications for income support and had been given 50 allocations of council housing. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the immigration service on yesterday's successful operations near Ashford.

Does the Minister agree that reducing the time allowed for certain appeals against refusal of asylum to 48 hours is not only unfair and unjust, but a contravention of natural justice, resulting in judicial reviews, which in turn lead to yet more delay? When do the Government expect to meet their own pathetic target—set last November—of providing a safe haven for no more than 1,000 Bosnians? Or does the Minister consider such people, whom we see nightly on our television screens, to be nothing more than fraudulent claimants?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as he has been told time and again, the selection of ex-detainees and other vulnerable people in Bosnia is a matter for the experts on the ground—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross. After the weeks and months that he has spent debating asylum during the current Session of Parliament, the hon. Gentleman really should have learnt that the 48-hour rule applies to those who have made manifestly unfounded applications and have been detained at ports. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to realise that by allowing such people to prolong their stay he would be delaying the consideration of genuine refugee cases in which people suffer genuine traumas.

Citizenship

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many people were granted British citizenship in (a) 1974, (b) 1979 and (c) 1992; and if he will make a statement.

In 1974 and 1979 respectively, 69,657 and 29,500 people were granted citizenship of the United Kingdom. In 1992, 42,241 people were granted British citizenship, excluding the number granted that status under the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1990.

Does my hon. Friend agree that those figures show that Conservative Governments operate firm and fair controls on immigration? Is it not the case that Opposition parties would abolish some of those controls, which at present reduce the flow of people coming into this country and ensure better race relations?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Opposition Members have consistently opposed our legislative proposals and the Asylum Bill, which is now the Asylum Act. The Government will maintain their firm but fair immigration controls on non-EC nationals, and in so doing underpin good race relations in this country.

Young Offenders

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what further proposals he has to deal with persistent young offenders; and if he will make a statement.

I intend to bring legislative proposals before the House as soon as possible.

I thank the Home Secretary for that reply. May I also—this may surprise him—welcome the initiatives that he has taken so far, particularly on behalf of the residents of the Saffron Lane estate in my constituency, who have been subjected to a great deal of criminal behaviour and hooliganism in the past few months? Does it cross his mind that a contributory factor to that criminal behaviour may well be the political thrust of the Government's policies over the past 14 years, which have emphasised selfishness and greed as opposed to collective action and responsibility?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the first words that he uttered, but I must tell him that the rest of his contribution was absolute nonsense from beginning to end. What we must never do is obscure the difference between right and wrong. That difference is well understood by the vast majority of people in this country. Making such absurd accusations is an affront to ordinary, decent, law-abiding people in all walks of life throughout the country.

I remind my right hon. Friend that it is about 25 years since Lord Kilbrandon in Scotland made a constructive distinction between the principles governing the way in which the commission of a crime is regarded and the punishment or treatment that is required after that has been done. Will he therefore look again at the whole concept in England of the age of criminal responsibility, because many of my constituents find it quite intolerable that there should be an automatic assumption that some hooligans and young children are too young to be scooped up by the law?

As my hon. Friend is well aware, we propose to take measures as soon as parliamentary time permits to enable persistent young offenders to be detained in secure accommodation and to receive the education and training which I hope will lead to a permanent change in their habits of behaviour.

I, too, welcome the measures being taken, because many people in Wolverhampton are tormented by the level of youth crime, but it is nonsense for the Home Secretary to believe that Opposition Members do not wish to see the difference between right and wrong. The atomisation of society by him, his party and his leader, and the belief that there is no such thing as society, has caused the uprising in young crime. It is a disgrace. Measures need to be—

Order. I have not yet heard a question from the hon. Gentleman. Does the Secretary of State wish to reply?

It is utterly disgraceful that week after week Opposition Members get up and protest against crime when they voted against the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the Public Order Act 1986, the Criminal Justice Act 1988, and the Criminal Justice Act 1991, and they continue to vote against the prevention of terrorism Act every time it comes before the House.

Special Constables

12.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the work of special constables.

Special constables play a valuable role in supplementing regular officers and strengthening the partnership between the police and the public. I have recently announced a new target of 30,000 special constables.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. The chief constable of Leicestershire is making intelligent use of special constables and, as a result of the additional target that my right hon. and learned Friend has announced, will make even better use of them. May I commend to him proposals for parish constables, which will increase the partnership between the public and the police so that villages in rural areas can feel safer? May I also commend the proposals of the high sheriff of Leicestershire, Mr. Robin Murray-Philipson, for a Leicestershire crime beat scheme bringing young people together with the police—

Order. Question Time is becoming a debating period. Members are asked to put questions to Ministers, not constituency cases. Has the hon. Member finished his question?

I was asking the Home Secretary to commend the high sheriff's Leicestershire crime beat scheme, which brings young people together with the police.

I will certainly look at the high sheriff's proposal with much interest. I am grateful for the support that my hon. Friend expressed, in particular for the possible introduction of parish constables throughout rural areas. We have payed all too little attention to rural crime, which requires determined and effective action. I hope that parish constables will be able to play a part in dealing with it.

Is it not likely that the target set by the Home Secretary will not be reached due to low morale among the regular police force following the Sheehy proposals? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not think it outrageous that he is proposing payment by results, short-term contracts and sacking policemen when they represent the thin blue line resisting the rising tide of Tory crime?

It is hardly surprising that the hon. Gentleman was unable keep a straight face as he asked that question.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement on special constables, but does he accept that the majority of crime in this country is committed by the same small group of people in each police division, who are doing it again and again? Does he accept that we have to focus on those people and keep them locked away for a long time so that they physically cannot burgle our constituents' houses, steal their cars and rape their daughters.

I have a great deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. I congratulate him on the measures that he has taken to give the prosecution powers to appeal against bail orders when they are inappropriate. I will always listen to the point of view that he represents.

Sheehy Report

13.

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what discussions will take place with the police before any of the Sheehy recommendations are implemented.

I announced on 30 June that full consultation would take place on Sir Patrick Sheehy's report. As part of the process, written comments on the report have been invited by the end of September. Before reaching my decisions, I intend to take full account of the views of the police and of others with an interest in these matters.

I hear what the Secretary of State has to say, but he must be aware of the massive opposition to the Sheehy report among all ranks of the police force, based on experience that payment by results and short-term contracts are a recipe for disaster in the force. Does he therefore agree that the way forward is to shelve the Sheehy report and to concentrate on developing a community police force based on a partnership between local authorities and the police?

I am aware—it is a point of view that I have heard expressed by police officers up and down the country—that there is a widely recognised need for change. During the consultation period on Sir Patrick Sheehy's report, I propose to explore ways in which we can achieve lasting and beneficial change in the police service for the benefit of the police and of everyone who lives in this country.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that for every 100 recorded crimes only four alleged offenders are brought to court? Since it is the job of the police to bring offenders to court, surely it would be a dereliction of duty if the Government were not considering ways to make the police force more effective and efficient.

I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend, who has identified the reason behind the various proposals that we are considering. The police have been operating within an out-of-date framework and we must bring it up to date in a sensible way, after consulting and entering into constructive dialogue with them. That is exactly what I propose to do.